Mosley and BAR glare across the grey area

Spanish GP: Heat but no light in the row that shook the sport
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Trust Bernie Ecclestone. You can rely on him to summarise a situation with comedic irony that would make Jack Dee proud. "The biggest crime when you are cheating is getting caught," he said, and therein lies one of Formula One's great truths.

Trust Bernie Ecclestone. You can rely on him to summarise a situation with comedic irony that would make Jack Dee proud. "The biggest crime when you are cheating is getting caught," he said, and therein lies one of Formula One's great truths.

But in Spain last week BAR Honda, booted out of the Spanish and Monaco grands prix and handed a six-month sentence, suspended for a year, by the sport's governing body, the FIA, were not universally judged to have cheated. In the hours after Jenson Button had finished third at Imola, the FIA's own race stewards - Paul Gutjahr, Katsutoshi Tamura and Giuseppe Muscioni - weighed and reweighed the car and ultimately declared it had not, as first suspected, contravened regulations demanding a minimum weight of 600kg. Then the FIA, in the shape of their president, Max Mosley, stepped in and appealed to their International Court of Appeal against their own stewards' ruling, accusing the team outright of fraudulent acts which included a "special compartment" to store fuel which was used as ballast after the car had run underweight in the race.

Last Wednesday this whole can of worms, lobbed at a sport that was beginning to revive its tarnished reputation after four great opening races, was reopened at the court in Paris. The following day in the Barcelona paddock, the F1 world awaited the verdict with bated breath. When it came, it proved devastating. The judges ruled that the team had failed to comply with the rules or to prove their case that their car did not ever run below 600kg.

The team refused to accept that they had been given a fair hearing - not the first time such an accusation has been levelled at a court that some still believe to be less independent than the FIA claim, despite the governing body making revisions recently in keeping with European law.

"BAR Honda is appalled at the decision at the FIA International Court of Appeal," their statement read, "and asserts that the judgment is contrary to all the evidence heard yesterday. The team proved that it complied with the current regulations and the FIA now acknowledges that the regulations are unclear. We repeat that at no time did BAR Honda run underweight at the San Marino Grand Prix, and this was also unchallenged by the FIA.

"While the International Court of Appeal rejected the FIA's original accusations of fraud and deception, BAR-Honda says that this penalty is wholly and grossly disproportionate. The team is advised by its legal counsel that the judgment is plainly wrong, based on the evidence presented, and it is currently examining its options."

In the end the team could not obtain an injunction against the penalty in time, and decided against further legal action. They took their licks and will return in Germany at the end of the month.

Justifying the ban, Mosley held a lengthy and robust press conference (in which he also outlined the governing body's take on every other controversial matter so far this season), but a transcript of the judgment was unavailable for 24 hours, allegedly because the FIA's lawyers were busily combing through it.

Cheating is a volatile word in the grey world of F1, where one man's illegality is another's clever loophole and the line between the two is often redrawn when matters come to be interpreted officially. The probability is that BAR Honda have not been alone in exploiting a grey area in the regulations. There may be as many as three other teams doing the same thing at times. According to the FIA, that is running their cars underweight during certain parts of races and then ballasting them back to the minimum weight with more fuel than is necessary at their final pit stop.

When one team feel that others may be doing that sort of thing, it is not uncommon for the spur of competition to seduce them into following suit. This is, after all, a game with very high stakes.

Views on the subject were divided. Some said that BAR Honda got what they deserved and that Mosley was absolutely right. Others suggested that, at a time when the governing body's president had made it clear that he was not going to have any truck with any of the so-called rebel teams who had not yet signed up to his plans for the sport beyond 2008, it was perhaps unwise to stick their neck out in any way that might leave them vulnerable.

The BAR trucks left the paddock on Friday, and Jenson Button kicked his heels during that day's practice before heading for home. The Englishman's path to BMW- Williams for 2006 has never looked smoother.

Button had left Spain by the time Kimi Raikkonen, Ralf Schumacher, Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso indulged in yesterday's shoot-out for the overnight pole, which saw them all separated by a mere 0.075sec. Schumacher Jnr set the ball rolling for Toyota with 1min 14.870sec; Raikkonen beat that with 1:14.819 in a McLaren overdue a win; Schumacher's team-mate Trulli aced them both with 1:14.795; and then Alonso sent his countrymen hoarse with 1:14.811 for Renault. It was not quite enough, but between them there is nothing that cannot be overcome in final qualifying with race-fuel loads this morning.

With Michael Schumacher only seventh (though he will gain a place, as the fifth-fastest, Nick Heidfeld, will lose 10 grid places after an engine change on his BMW Williams), Alonso had cause for optimism for his fourth win on the trot. "We are well set up for tomorrow, for qualifying and the race," he said. "I will be able to attack even more."

Time was, you were on speaking terms with all the crowd at a Spanish GP. Not any more. Alonso's burgeoning profile has brought Spaniards flocking. Good job they are not Button fans.